Metal Shop Masters is a new American Netflix series where a bunch of skilled metalworkers compete to make the best sculpture within a punishingly limited timeframe.
The fact that it exists is inevitable, because the world is running out of professions suited to programmes where people compete against each other. Off the top of my head, in the past few years we have had shows where professional bakers, amateur bakers, dressmakers, floral arrangers, glassblowers, jewellery designers, interior designers, makeup artists and potters battle to make a thing in a punishingly limited timeframe. Metalwork was bound to happen at some point.
While the charm of something like The Great British Bake Off is that you’re watching spirited amateurs do something with a low bar to entry, Metal Shop Masters does the complete opposite. You could not make a series about metalwork starring spirited amateurs, because five minutes into every episode someone would accidentally slice their arm off, or weld their eyeball out, or rivet enough metal to their face to legally qualify as a cyborg. Metal Shop Masters would be an unbroadcastable mess that would lead to several criminal prosecutions.
As such, the contestants are by far the best thing about the show. They are all profoundly gifted individuals, able to not only conceptualise a beautiful piece of art but also force it into being with nothing but sheer physical heft. The show begins with seven contestants who, from the outset, take the hokiest of briefs – essentially, “make a sculpture that reveals a lot about you” – and turn them into stunning pieces of art. There are robots. There are vast metallic dresses. There’s an angel in a suit of armour emerging out of what can only be described as a high-concept grief egg. They are all phenomenal. Which brings me to the worst part of the show.
Metal Shop Masters is a competition show, and that means there are judges. And the judges here – Stephanie Hoffman and David Madero – seem to exist solely to bum everyone out. In episode one, they call out one contestant for misreading a badly phrased brief and force her to dismantle her incredible artwork. Although they cheer up as the season wears on, their participation does tend to slow everything down a little. The joy of the show is seeing these amazing feats of engineering come to life. Nobody seems to have mentioned this to Hoffman and Madero, who seem to be labouring under the impression that viewers only watch shows like this because they enjoy finicky meddling.
In fact, Metal Shop Masters does seem to be held back by its own format a little. Some of the work produced, especially in the latter half of the series, is truly mindblowing. The contestants, too, are able to verbalise both concept and process with surprising ease. But they are weighed down by the arbitrary conventions of a tired genre. Nobody needs to get knocked out every week. Nobody needs to have a judge waddle in and muck things up. We have all grown so used to this artificial jeopardy that it bounces straight off us.
It is never a good thing to criticise something based on what you’d like it to be rather than what it is, but Metal Show Masters has such a disparity between talent and format that I’m going to do it anyway. I think the show I would have preferred to watch would simply consist of contestants making something each week. Nobody gets eliminated. Nobody wins. Just a show about the process of making something come to life from a few sheets of metal. It would be terrific and meditative, like a Bob Ross of metalwork. It’s what these talented artists deserve.